Sometimes it is hard to know where politics ends and metaphysics begins: when, that is, the stakes of a political dispute concern not simply a clash of competing ideas and values but a clash about what is real and what is not, what can be said to exist on its own and what owes its existence to an other.
The seething anger that seems to be an indigenous aspect of the Tea Party movement arises, I think, at the very place where politics and metaphysics meet, where metaphysical sentiment becomes political belief. More than their political ideas, it is the anger of Tea Party members that is already reshaping our political landscape. As Jeff Zeleny reported last Monday in The Times, the vast majority of House Democrats are now avoiding holding town-hall-style forums — just as you might sidestep an enraged, jilted lover on a subway platform — out of fear of confronting the incubus of Tea Party rage that routed last summer’s meetings. This fear-driven avoidance is, Zeleny stated, bringing the time-honored tradition of the political meeting to the brink of extinction.
Hegel’s thesis is that all social life is structurally akin to the conditions of love and friendship; we are all bound to one another as firmly as lovers are, with the terrible reminder that the ways of love are harsh, unpredictable and changeable. And here is the source of the great anger: because you are the source of my being, when our love goes bad I am suddenly, absolutely dependent on someone for whom I no longer count and who I no longer know how to count; I am exposed, vulnerable, needy, unanchored and without resource. In fury, I lash out, I deny that you are my end and my satisfaction, in rage I claim that I can manage without you, that I can be a full person, free and self-moving, without you. I am everything and you are nothing.
This is the rage and anger I hear in the Tea Party movement; it is the sound of jilted lovers furious that the other — the anonymous blob called simply “government” — has suddenly let them down, suddenly made clear that they are dependent and limited beings, suddenly revealed them as vulnerable. And just as in love, the one-sided reminder of dependence is experienced as an injury. All the rhetoric of self-sufficiency, all the grand talk of wanting to be left alone is just the hollow insistence of the bereft lover that she can and will survive without her beloved. However, in political life, unlike love, there are no second marriages; we have only the one partner, and although we can rework our relationship, nothing can remove the actuality of dependence. That is permanent.
In politics, the idea of divorce is the idea of revolution. The Tea Party rhetoric of taking back the country is no accident: since they repudiate the conditions of dependency that have made their and our lives possible, they can only imagine freedom as a new beginning, starting from scratch. About this imaginary, Mark Lilla was right: it corresponds to no political vision, no political reality. The great and inspiring metaphysical fantasy of independence and freedom is simply a fantasy of destruction.
In truth, there is nothing that the Tea Party movement wants; terrifyingly, it wants nothing. Lilla calls the Tea Party “Jacobins”; I would urge that they are nihilists. To date, the Tea Party has committed only the minor, almost atmospheric violences of propagating falsehoods, calumny and the disruption of the occasions for political speech — the last already to great and distorting effect. But if their nihilistic rage is deprived of interrupting political meetings as an outlet, where might it now go? With such rage driving the Tea Party, might we anticipate this atmospheric violence becoming actual violence, becoming what Hegel called, referring to the original Jacobins’ fantasy of total freedom, “a fury of destruction”? There is indeed something not just disturbing, but frightening, in the anger of the Tea Party.